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Saint Death

posted by awelborn

In Mexico

In the tough Tepito neighborhood, where poverty, corruption and violence are daily realities, there is a beloved “saint” who understands and forgives the frailties of all human flesh.
Her domain is a labyrinth of grimy streets lined with auto-body shops and humble mom-and-pop stores. From her perch behind a glass-encased altar adorned with candles, decayed flowers and shot glasses of tequila, she watches scruffy curs pick through garbage while a constant stream of pilgrims lays offerings at her feet.

To Roman Catholic Church officials, the skeletal woman in the long, flowing robes is an evil figure, a grisly embodiment of satanic purposes. But to the desperately poor and overlooked residents of Tepito she is a pop-folk idol and often a last, best hope for answering unanswered prayers.

She is La Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.”

Her petitioners are prostitutes, drug dealers and murderers, as well as multitudes of ordinary housewives, taxi drivers and street vendors hoping to cure a sick child or pay the rent or simply make it through another day without getting robbed or shot.

Over the past 20 years, her following has grown so large that in some parts of Mexico she is becoming a rival in popular affection to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary that is the reigning symbol of Mexican national identity.

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Hunk Hondo

posted March 21, 2004 at 2:02 pm

Interesting. I wonder–is this cult recent, or could it be some sort of holdover from the Aztecs, standing in relation to them as voodoo in Haiti does to the West Africans?

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posted March 21, 2004 at 2:12 pm

I know – the article gives us no hint of its origins. It’s from the LATimes, orignally. Perhaps the first version did.

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Sandra Miesel

posted March 21, 2004 at 2:32 pm

The Aztecs had a god of death, not a goddess.

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posted March 21, 2004 at 2:41 pm

Mexicans are a very superstitious people (I’m Mexican). Some of the tales my grandparents tell me are very frightening in this sort of way. La Dia de los Muertos and other creepy traditions show they also have a love of death.
Sadly, this creeps into their “Catholicism.” It’s odd.

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posted March 21, 2004 at 3:07 pm

The Atlantic Journal Constitution also carried the story. There is a picture here of St. Death. Click the “enlarge” link for a better look. She’s dressed like a bride.
The most eerie part is that this “saint” apparently produces miracles. Apparently this devotion began in the 1960s. The article also offers this explanation:
The phenomenon is rooted in Mexico’s pre-Columbian past but also reflects its troubled present, said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican novelist whose latest book is a series of stories called “La Santa Muerte.” Aridjis first stumbled across a shrine to St. Death when he received a mysterious fax inviting him to attend a drug lord’s birthday party. At the event, he wandered among AK-47-wielding bodyguards, beautiful women offering trays of booze and cocaine, and politicians and businessmen bearing exotic gifts. He fictionalized the lavish scene in the first story of his new book.
“It’s a complex cult,” Aridjis said. “On the one hand, it is inoffensive, with ordinary people involved. On the other, it is linked to Satanism and organized crime.”

And there is this reference, I think, to the black mass:
Romero’s son, a dentist, celebrates a “Mass” once a month, drawing worshippers bearing bouquets of fresh flowers and bottles of tequila to leave for the statue. Sometimes a devotee hires a mariachi band to serenade the statue with love songs.

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posted March 21, 2004 at 8:59 pm

Is she thought to be or have been a real person or is she considered an abstraction by her devotees?
Do the same individuals who honor her also honor Guadalupe?
Is she a diabolical counterfeit of Guadalupe?
Or are she and Guadalupe equally projections of the human imagination?

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posted March 21, 2004 at 9:10 pm

And let us not forget that third world Catholics are the hope of the Church.

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posted March 22, 2004 at 12:33 am

Hmm, despite my better judgement I think I’ll take a stab at answering Caroline’s questions. I’m not an expert (nor do I play one on t.v.), but I am the son of Mexican immigrants and travel there to visit relatives.
1) She’s a personification of death. I don’t think anyone believes they’re venerating a person who actually lived and died on earth. “Santa” is the feminine form of both “holy” and “saint” so I think a better translation of the name is “the holy death”. The word “muerte” (death) is itself feminine so death is almost always personified as a woman in Mexican Culture. I don’t know how it is in other Spanish-speaking cultures.
2) My guess is that many people who venerate “la santa muerte” probably also venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as Mary under her other titles and any other popular saints. A devotion to saints is still big in Mexican culture and people in desperate circumstances will try desperate things, even if it literally means seeking death’s favor.
3) I don’t think she’s a diabolical counterfeit of Guadalupe. The devotions don’t seem to have anything in common other than the general sort that you give to a saint.
Mind you, the Church discourages people from doing this. When I was last in Mexico this past september I saw a church spokesman, I *think* from the archdiocese of Mexico City speaking against it on national television. Also, this devotion is still kind of underground and is a lot less common than the news article makes it seem. You have to seek it out and its not like it’s everywhere. I’d only rarely see an image and this was on the rare prayer booklet sold by street vendors. And this was in a couple of urban areas. I never saw this with my relatives in the countryside. Plenty of ordinary Mexicans think its creepy too.
4) Yes, I suppose “the holy death” could be a projection of people’s imagination although didn’t St. Francis write of “sister Death”? I certainly don’t think the Virgin of Guadalupe is an imaginary projection at all and neither does the Pope or EWTN appearantly. Of course its your right not to believe in her, being a private revelation and all that. But I think you’d be wrong.
5)Despite the possible sarcasm in the last message I agree that so-called third world Catholics are *one* of the hopes of the Church. Other hopes, I think, are some of the movements and dynamic orders in the Church and people like Fr. Groeschel and even some of my favorite bloggers.
Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist over this, I’m sure there have been questionable practices among Catholics throughout the ages, wether among drug dealars in Mexico City or peasants in Calabria. And each time the Church sought to correct these abuses. Besides, how often do I read in St. Blog’s about goddess-worshipping nuns in the U.S.? And the Bad Catholic, presumably Bad U.S. Catholic, thread down below seems to be headed towards the 200 mark.

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posted March 22, 2004 at 9:56 am

Do you have any idea how veneration of this image got started? Is there a source that you know of?

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posted March 22, 2004 at 10:08 am

Thank you, Manny.

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posted March 22, 2004 at 11:05 am

Thanks, Manny. A very helpful comment. And you are right, “Saint Death” is not a good translation for “La Santa Muerte”. As you wrote, “Holy Death” is more accurate.

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posted March 22, 2004 at 4:25 pm

Dear Carrie,
I’m sorry I don’t know how this practice really started, but I can speculate. Many Catholics, in Mexico and the U.S., just aren’t well catechized. But Catholicism is a part of pop-culture in Mexico in a way it isn’t in the U.S. outside of ethnic neighborhoods. And much of it is a type of folk-Catholicism and a type piety that might be considered old-fashioned by some people in this country. So you’ll see people hawking novena booklets on the street with prayers to the holy souls in purgatory and prayers for a good and holy death. I can see how someone might slip from praying *for* a holy death to praying *to* the holy death, especially if a person only had very basic catechism lessons or none at all.
The neighborhood in the article, Tepito, is legendary for how rough it is. When I was staying with family in Mexico City and I joked about sightseeing in Tepito my cousin’s face went pale, and this is a tough “chilango” (Mexico City native).
Also, Mexican culture just approaches death a bit differently than other cultures. There are the pre-columbian influences for instance. There is the strong Spanish-Catholic influence. My mom has a strong devotion to the holy souls (animas benditas) and she talks of deceased relatives as if they live around the corner. People joke about death, giving it affectionate, half-mocking names like “la pelona” (the bald woman, as in a skeleton). It’s been personified as a woman for a long time. Just look at the engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada where sometimes death is depicted as the satirical figure of “la Catrina” a skeleton in a fancy dress and maribou feathers. I remember watching a movie from the 40’s called “El Ahijado de la Muerte” (Death’s Godson). The main character, an orphan I think, has death as a godmother who looks after him in the form of an old woman.
I wish I could recommend a specific source on the subject but I don’t know of any. I was going to recommend an apologetics group from Mexico for resources but their homepage is down and I don’t know if they’re still active. If I think of anything I’ll post it.
I the meantime you might want to read “The Skeleton at the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexico” by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer. It’s a good book about All Soul’s Day practices in southern and central Mexico and it’s nicely illustrated. You could also read Ocatvio Paz’s “The Labyrinth of Solitude”, his thoughts on the place of death in Mexican culture are considered classic.
P.S. I doubt the reference to a “mass” in the article was to a black mass. The mass is simply the type of religious service most Mexicans are familiar with so it wouldn’t surprise me if any sort of religious ceremony is casually referred to as a mass. I’ve even heard of some protestant groups in Mexico who will call their services ‘mass’ though I’ve never seen this myself.
God Bless.

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posted March 22, 2004 at 11:53 pm

I believe your explanation assumes that this figure somehow comes out of Catholicism. Is there a possibility that it has been fostered by some other source?
What other native or peasant or ghetto religions exist in Mexico?
I know a little about Catholics having been persecuted there, and that there was a Masonic influence behind this persecution. What I’m wondering is whether this figure somehow came out of an esoteric version of Masonry rather than from a Catholic source. The article did make a reference to satanism.

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posted March 23, 2004 at 11:27 am

I suppose anything is possible and perhaps there are a variety of influences at work. But as the article pointed out this devotion exists among the poorer and marginalized groups whereas my impression is that Masonry was an middle and upper-class thing. I do remember reading somewhere that the spiritualist movement (not sure if that’s the right term) of the late 19thC. had some influence at the time.
As the article also pointed out most ordinary people who engage in it do it for fairly ordinary reasons (need a job, help with school, etc.).
There are all sorts of local customs of different origin throughout the country, especially in the rural and more indigenous areas. Among some of the indigenous groups native beliefs co-exist among Christian ones. A couple of groups had beeen hardly touched by Christianity at all. There are also a number of unofficial folk-saints like el Nino Fidencio that the Church looks down upon but have lately gained in popularity. Lately there’s been a growing interest in New Age and Eastern religions, often in the middle and upper classe. Like in the U.S. these seem to be popular among some celebrities.

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posted April 24, 2004 at 12:58 am
This gives some idea what’s up with La Santisima. The owner of the gallery is very knowledgeable about this folk saint.
To some, she is the “other” side of Mary…the more familiar form being the one acknowledged in life and Santisima Muerte being the one who reigns over death. Not evil, just not of this world.

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posted May 13, 2004 at 12:16 pm

please,i will like to know if this stuff about saint death,meant catholics in mexico are idolaters(i mean worshippers of idols)?

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posted May 13, 2004 at 12:20 pm

please,i will like to know if this stuff about saint death,meant catholics in mexico are idolaters(i mean worshippers of idols)?If not what are the church authorities doing about it?I am a catholic,you know and am kind off pissed off with this.We should worship christ only and not irresponsible nonsenses like the stuff! saint death.

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posted July 7, 2004 at 4:44 am

Very interesting stuff?
In Seville Cathedrall a couple of years back I saw the ‘Black Madonna’ , who I correlate to the Hindu Goddess Kali, who in Tibetan Buddhism is called Vajra Yogini.
Maybe we are seeing anothe enmanation of that dark feminine entity that exists in the ‘collective unconscious’ (Jung) or does that sound like I am talking out of my **** – up here in Pseuds Corner.
mr Joty Barker
Links to; any images of her, and of tattoos…/

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posted October 28, 2004 at 10:54 am

The “Black Madonna” has nothing to do with pagan goddesses or Jung. Nor is there any evidence that this creepy “devotion” arises from Freemasonry; it seems to be an exaggeration of Catholic elements: skulls and skeletons as “momento mori”, the Day of the Dead, the dance of death, angel of death, etc. That stuff is not bad in and of itself, but acutally worshipping the Grim Reaper is going too far, way outside the pale for Catholics.
And yes, this does amount to worship of the Grim Reaper, as this page makes all too clear:
One element of this bizarre devotion which really bugs me is how this “La Santa Muerte” is quasi-identified with Blessed Mother, or else seems to function as a replacement for her.
“La Santa Muerte” is feminine like Mary, gets August 15 as a feast day – the Assumption, aka “Our Lady’s Easter”, perhaps the most important Marian feast on the calendar! “She’s” depicted as a bride, apparitions and miracles are attributed to “her”, and “she” in particular seems to stand in opposition to Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the very land devoted to Her.
One article mentions vendors selling “Grim Reaper” T-shirts, complete with the “Prayer to Saint Death,” outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Now consider that Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered the patroness of the pro-life movement, the Mother of the living who defeated the human sacrifice cults in Mexico centuries ago. It’s all becoming clearer now: Death -vs- Life. “St. Death” is trying to usurp the position of the Mother of Life.
In Jesu et Maria,

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posted November 1, 2004 at 12:01 pm

Why is everyone so superstitious!! God and
Saints don’t really exist. Why is there discussion. If you ask me, you are spending to much time discussing the meaning of saints instead of working here on Earth where you are!!

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posted September 17, 2005 at 11:18 am

It is bad to worship her because if you are not faithful to her, she takes what you love more,this was told to me by a saint death worshiper. Besides, God is the only true saint in this world!

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